“The child wonders at the Christmas Tree,” the speaker of Eliot’s poem observes, recalling “the glittering rapture, the amazement / Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree” and “the surprises, delight in new possessions” found beneath it. The speaker wishes for the child to “continue in the spirit of wonder” — to hold tight to these moments, to the happiness and hope that accompanied them. In so doing, even when the innocence of childhood is inevitably replaced by the travails of adulthood, “the reverence and the gaiety / May not be forgotten” and “the accumulated memories of annual emotion / May be concentrated into a great joy.” Through the remembrance of Christmases past, joy can be kept evergreen.
Children learn sequentially and cumulatively. A child’s readiness to learn in second grade is dependent on what was learned in first grade; a child’s readiness to learn in third grade is dependent on what was learned in first and second grade; and so on and so forth, onward and upward, from primary school to secondary school to college (consider this datum: 84 percent of Alabama’s high-school graduates in 2015 were unprepared for college-level coursework in English, mathematics, reading, and science, according to the ACT). As the complexity of the curricula increases, so too does the difficulty of catching up. Thus, a child’s future can be threatened by having a single bad teacher, and devastated by having several bad teachers.
That the quality of a child’s teachers is consequential to the child’s life should be self-evident, but academic research provides us evidence. For example, in a paper published last year in the American Economic Review, one of the most prestigious journals in the field, Raj Chetty of Harvard University, John Friedman of Brown University, and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University studied the effect of teachers on long-term student outcomes. The authors found that, for students, better teachers mean “substantial economic and social benefits,” which begin in adolescence and continue through adulthood. Students with good teachers are less likely to have children as teenagers, more likely to attend college after high school, and more likely to earn higher salaries as adults. Moreover, replacing the worst 5 percent of teachers with average teachers – nota bene, not good or even great teachers – would increase students’ lifetime income by about $1.4 million per classroom, or $50,000 per child. Another scholar, reviewing the study, concluded: “These figures indicate that eliminating bad teachers may be the quickest way to improve the job prospects of low-income Americans, reduce income inequality, and boost our future economy.”